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Topic: Preparing Teachers of Mathematics
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Preparing Teachers of Mathematics
Posted: Mar 7, 2000 6:51 PM
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From The Math Forum website:

Preparing Teachers of Mathematics: Asking the Right Questions

Lynn Arthur Steen, St. Olaf College

(A discussion document prepared for a February 1995 workshop on the
preparation of science and mathematics teachers sponsored by the National
Science Foundation.)

Politicians and policy wonks are fond of giving vague advice about
improving the preparation of teachers. Strategies differ, sometimes
emphasizing carrots (money), other times sticks (certification

Rarely do such broad pronouncements recognize that the problems of teacher
preparation, like those of cancer, arise from multiple sources and require
correspondingly different solutions.

Mathematics Teachers. Let's begin with a question of definition: Who is a
mathematics teacher? For grades 9-12, perhaps even grades 7-12, one can see
the outlines of an answer, since most schools have separate mathematics
courses for those grades. However, often the teachers of these classes are
primarily trained in something other than mathematics (e.g., French,
chemistry) so they may not view themselves, professionally, as "mathematics
teachers." Moreover, the current emphasis on interdisciplinary,
project-oriented teaching (e.g., environmental studies) requires that even
teachers who have thought of themselves as primarily (or exclusively)
mathematics teachers must now take a broader view, and teachers of other
subjects (e.g., history, biology) must begin to accept responsibility for
using and teaching mathematics as part of their work.

Elementary school teachers rarely view themselves as "mathematics
teachers," even though mathematics is a significant part of their
responsibility at every grade. Nonetheless, their preparation must be
primarily on the broad preparation required to teach young children, not
primarily to teach specific subjects such as mathematics. Teachers of the
middle grades occupy an ill-defined niche between elementary and secondary
that has no established national consensus concerning
appropriate preparation.

So who is a mathematics teacher? Answer: Virtually every teacher.

Prospective Mathematics Teachers. Students who become teachers take their
undergraduate courses in a wide variety of institutions, only some of which
have preparation of teachers as a central part of their mission. Many
students study most or all of their mathematics in two-year colleges,
liberal arts colleges, or research universities in courses that are not
specifically designed for prospective teachers. So the mathematical
preparation of prospective teachers becomes the responsibility of the whole
mathematics faculty, since students who will become teachers can be found
in virtually every course.

Demographic data on students reveals the dramatic growth of ethnic
pluralism in our nation's public schools. Yet data on the educational
pipeline shows virtually no growth in the diversity of graduates with
degrees or significant coursework in mathematics. The contrast between the
national portrait presented by students and by those certified to teach
mathematics is outrageous. Clearly we need to use the undergraduate years
to recruit mathematics teachers, not just educate those who insist on this

Thus our second question: Who is a prospective mathematics teacher? Answer:
Virtually every undergraduate.

Curriculum Issues. Students who will obtain certification to teach high
school mathematics will generally take a mathematics major along with other
students, including prospective engineers, lawyers, and mathematicians.
Faculty face an immense challenge to help students in mathematics courses
see appropriate connections to their greatly varied interests, ranging from
engineering to high school teaching. Yet unless this challenge is met,
prospective high school teachers will remain inarticulate when pressed by
students with the persistent question: What good will this ever be to me?
Prospective teachers need to be convinced by the same evidence as
prospective scientists, engineers and economists of the nature and utility
of mathematics.

Students who will obtain certification as elementary school teachers often
take some or all of their mathematics courses as part of general education
requirements, not in special courses for prospective elementary school
teachers. This suggests an even greater challenge to the mathematics
faculty--to design courses that are suitable to provide the broad
mathematical literacy required by an educated public and by those who will
teach young children. Is there much difference between what a citizen needs
to know about mathematics and what a child should learn in a
standards-inspired elementary school curriculum? Shouldn't teachers
encounter the same evidence of the nature and role of mathematics, in the
same classes, as prospective lawyers, journalists, and business leaders?

Thus the final question:

What should prospective teachers learn about mathematics?

Answer: Just what every other well-educated person learns.


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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